Public spaces are essentially meant for individuals and communities to come together and interact with each other. They vary vastly in size and shape, including plazas, streets, footpaths, etc., all having their own function and purpose. While the smaller parks serve the neighbourhood, the more massive interventions have city-level importance. Nonetheless, their enormity is not equivalent to their success. The most important aspect is to keep the ‘user’ at the core of the design.
Famous urbanists, including Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, and William H. Whyte, have looked at the specific connection between people and place. Spaces that work the best make people feel connected to their immediate surroundings and micro-environment. This connection encourages people to spend more time in the public realm. Urban planners and designers often juggle between the importance of technicalities such as access to the nearest public transit or other amenities and the provision of more minor elements such as sitting space, weather-responsive shelters, activities and social participation in the public realm. Maintaining a balance between the two is the key to a thriving public realm.
More than Open Public Spaces
Public places comprise many design elements interconnected in a web. These elements depend on and serve one another to achieve high-quality public spaces. There is vast literature on distinct design elements that make a public space successful.
Here we have two pairs of design elements that may depend on several other physical factors yet directly influence the individuals present in the public realm:
- Walkability and Continuity
- Flexibility and Human-scaled infrastructure
1. Walkability and Continuity
Designers have always promoted walkable neighbourhoods; what they often miss from the equation is its continuity. In its most basic form, walkability means an area where places are accessible to people on foot. Our designs include elements such as footpaths and crosswalks, as well as a radius for providing specific amenities within certain distances. The problem arises when many such blocks are designed independently with no interconnection.
Continuity, as the name suggests, means a consistent existence of something, in this case—the walkable environment. Continuity is an essential aspect of the journey, whether people move on foot or in vehicles. The comfort of cars allows people to take minor detours and longer routes with little thought. For people relying on micro-mobility, a slight change of direction or broken path is more problematic. It is thus important to maintain continuity in the urban setting that spreads around the main public space.
The demarcation between the public and private realm should primarily exist without the public realm ending abruptly. The slight variation in setting, implying a change of space function, yet allowing a clear connection to the surrounding public spaces, makes the difference. Connecting the individual, physically demarcated public spaces to the whole public realm allows people to stay in the public realm yet to commute from one place to another with ease.
2. Flexibility and Human-scaled infrastructure
We often expect people to adapt to their surroundings; rarely, it is the other way around. Designers know the importance of several street infrastructure elements such as seats, lights, wayfinding methods, etc. However, when designed in grandeur, such elements lose their ability to provide people with a sense of belonging. Tall lamp posts and stagnant benches do the job, but that of the bare minimum. They may meet the users’ needs in one place, but they are not flexible or adaptive to the users’ wants.
Flexibility in urban design is the ability of the public realm to adapt to people’s changing behavioural needs. It makes the public realm adaptive and caters to the larger population’s diverse needs. Minor demands may include shifting the seats or moving in the shade while walking without disrupting the journey. On a larger scale, we can understand it as the space providing multiple opportunities for people to use the same design elements for different purposes. A bench fixed in place, for example, may be able to sit only two people facing the street; but a bench varying in shape and easy to move can make things easy for a group to sit together and observe the street life. The same square can be used for large gatherings, informal markets, or only as a leisure spot on varying occasions, depending on the users’ requirements.